Jules Massenet (1842-1912) is primarily known as the composer
of more than 30 operas. He reached his peak of fame during the
“La Belle Époque” era during the 1880’s and 1890’s, when his
most famous stage works, “Manon” and “Werther,” were
premiered. These operas were a perfect reflection of the times.
However, Massenet was also fairly prolific in other musical genres.
In addition to several Songs, Orchestral Suites and other works,
he composed about six or seven Oratorios and Cantatas, one of
which is “La Vierge” from 1880.
The 2009 DVD release of this performance was filmed in the
absolutely gorgeous Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, Roma.
It featured soprano Montserrat Caballé and her daughter,
soprano Montserrat Martí, along with a “S.A.T.B.” vocal quartet,
and both mixed and children’s choruses. These vocal forces
were accompanied by the Orchestra Sinfonica del Festival di
Pasqua, under the baton of José Collado.
“La Vierge” is a sacred Oratorio in four scenes, recounting the
life of the Virgin Mary, replete with a visit by the Angel Gabriel,
and ending with Mary’s death and ascension. I was glad to hear
this piece, because I’d never heard it before. However, in all
honesty, I cannot say that it’s an unjustly neglected masterpiece.
It has some attractive moments which are typical of Massenet’s
music, but it rarely if ever approaches the sublime. I believe that
Massenet may have had a great gift for melody, which was largely
responsible for his popularity; however, this 90-minute work
seemed uninspired to me.
While I would not refer to them as first rate, I suppose that the
chorus and orchestra acquitted themselves fairly well, given
their level of proficiency. Interestingly, I noticed a saxophone
in the orchestra. At the time “La Vierge” was written, this
instrument was rarely used in orchestral music outside of France.
Georges Bizet (1838-1875) also famously used one in his
“L’ Arlésienne” music.
Montserrat Caballé sang more solos than any of the other
singers, and although she could still float pianissimi, she was
clearly past her prime. Her daughter, Montserrat Martí, had
a beautiful lyric soprano sound, and the other four soloists
also gave fine performances. Bass-baritone Kim Young-Joo
was particularly impressive.
I found that the camera work was disproportionately devoted
to shots of the interior of the church. Admittedly, it was gorgeous,
but I would have preferred that the singers had received more footage.
From viewing this DVD, you’d surmise that the venue was more
important than the music! In addition, the audience tended to
applaud at “odd” moments during the piece, lending an
amateur quality to the whole affair. Nevertheless, the sound
engineering was good, effectively capturing the reverberant
acoustic of the church.
As I mentioned before, in the interest of exploring new pieces,
I am glad that I saw this performance, even though the overall
experience may not have been “top tier.” Let’s just say that
“La Vierge” is a nice, but ultimately somewhat forgettable work.